Food column: Pickle summer, it'll last longer
Since the harvest season in New Mexico is approaching, and in some gardens it is already in full swing, now is the time to start preserving some of the foods that all arrive at ripeness at the same time.
Whether it is organic produce from the many farmers’ markets around the area, the cheapest vegetables of the year at many grocery stores, or from your own private or shared garden, pickling some of these veggies and fruits will ensure there is plenty in the larder for months to come.
If harvesting from your own garden, pick vegetables as they become ripe and store in the refrigerator for later. Stocking the kitchen with a few staples will allow for quick pickling, often less than two hours a week. See sidebar for a comprehensive list of ingredients needed for cold pickling.
The easiest and most convenient process is usually called “refrigerator pickles.” This allows a brine to preserve vegetables quickly and easily. These pickles are not shelf-stable, but will stay safe and wholesome for months in the refrigerator and do not require a canning setup.
Some ideal vegetables for pickling are cucumbers, summer squash of all kinds, okra, green beans and other produce that can be grown easily in a backyard or window boxes.
As in all food processing procedures, sanitized surfaces, hands and utensils are a must, but it is even more important when preserving food, as the food is often kept for extended amounts of time before consumption. Cutting boards should be washed with a bleach solution, rinsed and allowed to air dry before each use. All vegetables should be thoroughly washed before being peeled, sliced or pierced.
Depending on the type of vegetable to be pickled, it may need to be processed first. Okra should be washed, blanched (dropped in simmering water for just a minute or two, then chilled in ice water to stop the cooking process) and then pierced with a fork at least three times per pod.
Most summer squashes do not need to be blanched, but will need to be cut in evenly sized pieces, either diced or cut into slices or sticks. If a neighbor or friend drops off a grocery sack of mutant squash the size of your arm, these will need to be seeded before pickling.
Green beans, one of the most delicate and delicious of pickles, need to be washed, trimmed at each end and blanched before pickling. Use common sense when preparing other vegetables; thick-skinned or tough produce should be peeled, blanched, cut into smaller pieces or at least pierced.
There are hundreds of sites online that give advice on preserving food. One of the most helpful is the National Center for Home Food Preservation, based at the University of Georgia. The website, at nchfp.uga.edu, is a treasure trove of information for preserving, smoking, canning and otherwise keeping food at home.
Once the food is prepared for pickling, the only other step is to make the brine. A brine includes such natural preservatives as salt, sugar, vinegar and flavoring spices. There is no hard-and-fast rule or recipe for a brine, but a good start is one part sugar, two to four parts salt and six to eight parts each of water and vinegar. Spices can be added once the sugar and salt have been dissolved.
Basic vegetable pickle
4 pounds of vegetables, prepared for pickling
½ cup sugar
1 to 2 cups salt
3 to 4 cups water
3 to 4 cups vinegar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 bay leaves (or one per jar)
2 teaspoons whole mustard seed
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 to 2 tablespoons total of other ground or whole spices
Place the vinegar in the freezer in a plastic container, or in an ice cube tray. Bring the water to a boil and dissolve salt and sugar. Add whole or ground spices and turn off heat. Place the vegetables in sanitized jars. (Tip: if pickling long veggies or pieces of veggies, lay the jar on its side and fill) Add the chilled vinegar to the brine and ladle into the upright jars to the brim. Tighten a sanitized lid on each jar and place in refrigerator. Pickles take three days to two weeks to absorb brine. Smaller pieces will be ready more quickly. Any leftover brine can be chilled and stored, tightly sealed in the fridge for up to two weeks and added to the next batch. Refrigerator pickles will last for months when kept chilled and sealed, but should be eaten within two weeks after they are opened.
Ideally, pickling should be done in canning jars, which are available at hardware stores, big box stores and often at grocery stores. Used jars and lids can be used, but always be sure to sanitize them with a store-bought sanitizing wash, a dishwasher with a heating drying cycle or by boiling. Never reuse a rusty or discolored lid.
- Granulated Sugar (or honey)
- Canning or pickling salt (do not used regular salt, as additives will make the brine cloudy and interfere with preservation)
- Apple cider or high-quality wine vinegar
- Bay leaves
- Whole peppercorns
- Whole mustard seed
- Chili flakes
- Granulated garlic
- Roasted or blanched garlic cloves (raw garlic is not recommended)
- Caraway seed
- Fennel seed
- Dried ginger root
- Dried dill
- Dried tarragon
- Ground turmeric
- Fresh herbs such as dill, green onion or thyme can be added, but must be washed thoroughly and dried before mincing